When you were in Auschwitz, did you ever attempt to escape?
No. Because number one, there was a double wire and the wires in the camp were all electrified with 2000 volts, high tension. We saw, every so often, we saw that someone tried to escape. Then they brought them into the camp and then, in front of everybody, they were hanged to make sure we didn't make any attempts. There was a whole team, I don't know how many carts they had, who went around the perimeter of the camp every morning, in all of the camps I'd been in, to pick people up because people ran into the electric fences to commit suicide. I had been close to it once or twice but I never could get myself to do it. I believed, "I want to make it, I want to tell the story." But a lot of people committed suicide. You just touch the wire and you were dead, high tension, you know 2000 volts.That was even in the smaller camps I was in later on.
Did you make any close friends in Auschwitz?
Yes, you meet people. As a matter of fact a week ago I talked to someone who lives in Paris. I saw a picture in a pamphlet—you have heard of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem? There's a memorial for the Holocaust, it's a huge museum today if you want to call it a museum. And I'm on their mailing list, you can imagine why, you can guess why. And there's my friend Maxi, his picture. So I immediately called another friend of mine in Paris and I said, "Find his name, find his address." And he went through the phone and he said, "I know, I know of him," he said. So he called me back a couple hours later, and he's given me his phone number and his address, so I dialed and I said, "Maxi, this is..." And he got so excited. I hadn't seen or heard from him—we were in the camps—from Auschwitz, to Warsaw, to Dachau, to Kaufering—we were in four camps together. And he survived too, which I didn't know. He's about a year younger than me and he's a successful businessman, and he's doing a lot for that museum in Jerusalem.
Then we talked and he sent me some papers, some of the things he's working on in the charity field, and there was somebody who made it too. He's the only one I know, he's the only one I know. No one from Holland came back, I was the only one who came back. He went back to Paris and I went back to Holland. That's the only contact I have. The one I had contact with, the one who came to Auschwitz first, who found me when I got there, he and I stayed together after that for all the years, through five camps. Then he went back to Holland, but he came later, and he met a girl there, and we got them married, and then he stayed there for a month or two, but I went back to Holland immediately. The Dutch government picked us up.
But we stayed friends until then. He moved...when I moved to this country in 1949, he moved to Rhodesia, which is now Zimbabwe in Africa because he had relatives there. He visited us about a dozen times, he and his wife. But then on his last trip in 1986—I think it was about—he visited us and we went from here to New Orleans. He knew this country well, he traveled all other this country. He had a heart attack, and he died in New Orleans, and his wife had died just shortly before that. That's why Maxie is the only one. His last name is Libratie. He was born in Marseille, he lives in Paris now.
What was the name of your friend who died in New Orleans?
Hahns Trixel. He used his stage name as his last name because he had a very German name, Elsbar. It is very German, and in Holland, they weren't so wild about Germany after the war especially. He used his stage name. He's gone. He saved my life.
Can you go into more detail about how your friendship with Hans helped you throughout your time?
He was about a year and a half maybe two—I forget for the moment—older, so when he saw me he told me what to do and what not to do. I was a young kid, I was 15 years old. That helped me. He gave me some of his food when I was in the rafters. Then he talked me into going with him on this "transport unknown" which saved my life. We were always together and he was very protective of me as a younger brother, so-called. We didn't call each other that, but that's how it felt. But then there were other friends at that time. The friendships were there because you respected each other, you were on the same boat.
But when the war was over we scattered all over. The Dutch government picked up the ones from Holland. Others went into the DP camps, there were enormous DP camps in Germany for 3-4 years after the war, these people had no place to go. They couldn't go back to Eastern Europe, they couldn't go back to the Balkans. They stayed—mostly from Eastern Europe—they stayed in the DP camps until Israel opened up in 1948. Some came to the United States, there was a quota which this country had to come into this country. There was a whole segment of events that we had to go through. Some we want to forget, some you can't forget.
What were dreams like when you were in the camp?
I have no idea. I don't know if we were dreaming. We were hungry. In the camp you had no luxuries, of course, you didn't have a toothbrush, or bathroom tissue, or soap, there was nothing. You had a pair of pants and a jacket, striped uniforms, you have seen, and that's all you had. But I don't remember ever dreaming—hoping to get out, hoping to make it.
Can you describe the dreams you had during sleep?
Did you ever get sick at Auschwitz?
If you got really sick you go to "Barracks 13" they called it, and the next day you'd be gassed. I once got run over by a lorry, they called it—you know, one of those wheelbarrows, those heavy double wheelbarrows—and I was destined to go to "Barracks 13." My friend again, the magician, he hid me in the rafters in his barracks and shared his food with me. That's when we got out. He said, "We're getting out of here." And we volunteered, he volunteered me and him on a "transport unknown," I don't know if I talked about it [before]. He says, "Either we go on the 'transport unknown' and we'll get killed tomorrow morning or we really go to somewhere," because they did take people out of Auschwitz for work details and other factories, other cities, wherever. "And if we stay here, we'll be dead in three weeks anyhow or maybe next week. So, let's take a chance. There's no one who gets out alive out of Auschwitz." And I was in the rafters up there and we went on this transport, and that's how we got to Warsaw because it was "transport unknown" but nobody told us where we were going. We were in the boxcars about two, three days then, we were in Warsaw seeing the ghetto burning.
Was there a black market or a trading of goods at Auschwitz?
No. I mean everybody was so hungry. You got in the morning some hot water, they called it tea—obviously it wasn't tea like you drink here tea. At lunch you got a bowl of soup, but there were four people to a bowl. It's a bowl like this [gestures], and every four people had one bowl so you had sit around. In the evening you got a piece of bread and you ate it fast because if you had saved it for the next day, the rats would eat it, or they would steal it from you. It wasn't that simple. Everything was kind of—you know what you had to do.
What did you do at Auschwitz for work?
I worked in the road gangs. I worked near the gas chambers, we had to build some more buildings, helping build buildings for some more. They had seven gas chambers and crematoria there. That's most of the work I did there, on the road gangs. In Warsaw I did different things. I worked in the laundry one for a while, then I worked to build German trenches. Then in Dachau, outside Dachau, we were building underground munitions factories for the Germans where they built the V2. The first rockets were made by the Germans.They built underground munitions factories, that's what we had to build. We weren't building, we were the laborers who carried the sand, and the gravel, and et cetera, and cement.
Did you make any friends in Auschwitz?
Yes, but the friendships, there is no one left. Except I was reading in a French paper this last week, and I see a name there, his name was Maxi Libertie, he's a Frenchman. He and I were in four camps together. I didn't know that he was alive but he survived. He is the only one that we have found, we did a little research on it. I wrote him a letter this morning, I got his address, I had to call France to get his street address which I didn't have. So I am waiting for an answer but he is about my age apparently he is a businessman in France. So I am sure we'll meet now somewhere, somewhere, somehow. But no, there is no one left. I had this one friend, like I said, but he died about four years ago. He was a little older than me. But that's all I know of any of those people.
Can you tell us about the sleeping quarters in the camps?
It was no Hilton. It was just a wooden bench and it was as long–depends on the barracks–4, 5, 6 meters long, and we slept one next to each other, there was no separation. There were no bathrooms, there were cans, they were brought in during the night. They woke up...there were always people who had to stay up at night to move the big wooden cans. And you slept from nine o'clock until about four. There were no pillow-cases, or pillows rather. There were blankets, 4 or 5 to a blanket. You took your jacket off and put it under your head.
But what you have to realize is the conditions you lived under. Nowadays it's very easy to go to the bathroom and have toilet paper, and I use my language for a moment. There was no such thing as as toothbrushes or toothpaste or soap or toilet paper or anything–the things we take for granted. There was nothing. You had a pair of pants and a jacket and a cap, and galoshes–which were wooden things with canvass over–that was it. And I don't know how we did it? But, there was no accommodation or even the thought of the most common articles of survival, from toothbrushes to toilet paper, to...it wasn't there. No showers.
Were you sleeping next to people who were sick?
Sick? Yeah, and sometimes they were dead in the morning too, because you were lined up. It's hard to even conceive, for me, that I was there. If it wasn't for the number on my arm I would sometime doubt, "Did I really go through that?" So, it lasted 3-1/2 years.
Did you get sick?
I never got sick, I got sick, yes but not "sick." Colds here and there, but I didn't get the typhoid, which was very prevalent. Then the diarrhea was common. But the other diseases, you didn't think about it. The typhoid was the big killer.